Have you ever had a game you really wanted to love, but it just didn’t work out? For me, Bus Simulator 21 is that game. News of its impending release caught my eye in late summer, and I knew I had to try it. Almost all of my gaming these days involves a handful of racing sims, but the idea of a lower-stress driving experience seemed like an attractive distraction from the world outside.
At this point, any actual bus drivers reading this will be shaking their heads. Because as I have come to learn, driving a bus is pretty stressful.
The conceit of Bus Simulator 21 is extremely straightforward: you manage a transportation company and drive buses across a number of different environments. There are fictional open-world environments—one in the US and one in Europe—and real buses, including double-deckers and even fully electric ones.
To begin with, you design your character—the creator includes the pandemic-aware option to give your avatar a face mask—and test drive a couple of buses at the dealership. You can wander around the environment, including checking out the interiors of the buses, then take control of a bus by approaching the driver’s seat. After choosing your bus, it’s time to drive the first route.
Since this is a game, you have missions—spend time driving at night or create a new route, for instance—and as you complete them, you unlock new buses and new parts of the environments.
Almost immediately, it became clear that my fantasy of having a relaxing time cruising through the city was just that—a fantasy. Because cruising implies leisure, and driving a bus is not a leisure activity—it’s a job with requirements that must be met.
For instance, you have to obey all the traffic laws. This is not Grand Theft Auto, and running over a pedestrian is frowned upon. It might even discourage them from riding your bus. That means you need to signal when you’re turning.
You are also expected to stop relatively precisely at each stop. The bus should be facing the right direction. It really should not be parked half on the curb.
Then it’s time to lower the bus, open the door, and do the ticketing. I enjoy the ticketing process—about two-thirds of your passengers have passes and just smile or walk past you. But others will ask for tickets in various combinations, and you get to make change. The ticket machine makes a satisfying noise as you dispense each coin.
But you can’t take your time, because a bus route is nothing without a timetable. And timetables only allow for so much dawdling… or someone’s inability to remember how to put the bus back into gear. At this point, it’s helpful to not get flustered and to remember that, yes, you still have to signal when pulling out.
There’s also the fact that driver engagement is not really a priority in bus development. I remember, a long time ago, reading that Lotus Engineering had done some consultancy for a coach manufacturer and that the result was a bus chassis that handled like a big, slow Lotus Esprit. But the crowded streets of Angel Shores never seemed like the place to test if my Mercedes-Benz Citaro had some of the same magic.
In fact, all my bus driving has been with a controller. Wheel support is pretty good on the PC but not so great on consoles, and I haven’t been able to get my Thrustmaster T-GT to work with the game when played on the PS4. Sadly, that dealt a pretty big blow to my immersion in the game.
Consequently, time spent in Bus Simulator 21 often felt like hard work. My gaming time is so limited these days that I’d rather not spend it doing more chores, so I haven’t put in enough time to unlock an electric bus. The game never felt like something more rewarding than working for a bus company without getting paid.
I don’t necessarily mean this as a knock on Bus Simulator 21. It’s not called Relaxing Bus Cruiser 21, after all—that was just my projection.
Verdict: The game promised to faithfully simulate the “exciting daily life of a bus driver,” and I think it delivers. Just make sure that’s actually what you want—bus drivers are paid for their time.